Friday night's Orange Bowl showdown between the third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs and second-ranked Michigan Wolverines promises to be a highly intense battle. The stakes couldn't be higher. A spot in the National Championship game awaits the winner as college football's elite look to separate themselves from the pack.
The Wolverines are largely considered the underdogs as they prepare to compete in the College Football Playoff after capturing their first Big Ten Championship since 2004. Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines earned this playoff berth by compiling a pair of excellent victories over Ohio State and Iowa in recent weeks. These two programs are that of the throwback nature: hard-nosed, tough teams that don't give up an inch. It promises to be a tight-knit affair between two competitive squads that are built on the same ideologies. We've identified three player-versus-player matchups we’re particularly excited to monitor.
AIDAN HUTCHINSON AND DAVID OJABO vs. JAMAREE SALYER AND WARREN MCCLENDON
The No. 1 overall player in our latest TDN100 update, Aidan Hutchinson is the most feared pass rusher in all of college football. Hutchinson has exploded in 2021 after an unfortunate injury cost him the majority of his 2020 season. A haunting pass rusher, Hutchinson possesses a versatile skill set that allows him to terrorize opposing offensive tackles on an extremely consistent basis. Hutchinson's dynamic athletic profile allows him to win with a dealer's choice of pass rush moves. His rare combination of length, power, and technical refinement has led to an astonishing 14 sacks in 13 games thus far.
Thankfully for Michigan, their ability to impact the pocket and get after the quarterback doesn't solely rely on Hutchison. His running mate David Ojabo has taken the nation by storm with a breakout campaign of his own. Ojabo entered 2021 as a largely unknown commodity, having recorded just one tackle in limited playing time. Ojabo patiently waited in the wings and is currently making the most of his newfound opportunity.
The Nigerian-born Ojabo is a lightning bolt off the edge while possessing raw and exciting athletic tools in abundance. First-round projections are beginning to emerge as Ojabo has recorded a staggering 11 sacks thus far.
The Wolverine duo of Hutchison and Ojabo have combined for 25 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss in Michigan's 13 games. College football's most dynamic pass-rushing duo should have every opportunity to leave their mark in Georgia's backfield. Bulldogs left tackle Jamaree Salyer is an NFL-level talent, but is an offensive guard that is currently being miscast as a blindside protector. Salyer lacks ideal length and will have his work cut out for him. Sophomore right tackle Warren McClendon is an exciting talent, but his lack of experience will be tested under the bright lights. These battles are big-time.
HASSAN HASKINS VS. JORDAN DAVIS, NAKOBE DEAN, AND GEORGIA’S FRONT SEVEN
What happens when an immovable force meets an unstoppable object? We're going to find out on Friday night. Michigan will undeniably attempt to establish their dominant rushing attack in what promises to be an old-school affair. The Wolverines are averaging an astounding 223.8 rushing yards and three touchdowns per contest in 13 showings this season. The problem? They'll encounter a fierce Bulldogs defense that is allowing opponents to accumulate just 82.2 rushing yards per game while somehow allowing a mere three rushing touchdowns all season.
The success of Michigan's running game starts and ends with dynamic running back Hassan Haskins. The senior ball-carrier was absolutely electric in Michigan's historic upset over Ohio State, rushing for an astounding 169 yards and five touchdowns(!) on 28 attempts. Haskins followed up that breathtaking performance by scoring another two touchdowns in Michigan's Big Ten triumph over Iowa.
Georgia's front seven is powered by the likes of defensive tackle Jordan Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean, who possesses the first-round chops to potentially stifle Haskins in the backfield. Both teams will remain stubborn in their commitment to their game plans. It's what got them this far. The battle between Michigan's offensive line, Haskins, and Georgia's front seven promises to be a heavyweight affair.
TRAVON WALKER vs. RYAN HAYES
Few players have boosted their draft stock in a larger manner than Georgia's Travon Walker has throughout 2021. The former 5-star recruit possesses the ideal size and length for the position and he's now showcasing a better understanding of how to string those natural gifts together. Walker has consistently flashed an exciting skill set that marries rare athleticism with versatility along Georgia's haunting defensive front. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound Walker has given opposing quarterbacks all they can handle en route to recording a career-high four sacks in 11 appearances.
Walker will predominantly line up opposite the left tackle against Michigan, and that will pit him against senior blindside protector Ryan Hayes. A local talent from Traverse City, Michigan, Hayes has started all 13 games for the Wolverines this season. A consistent, underrated performer, Hayes is a highly experienced offensive tackle that won't be intimidated by the bright lights while battling through the difficult challenge of stifling Walker. Walker is undeniably the more talented player here, but Hayes is a battler that understands what’s at stake.
When Hayes was asked about preparing for Walker and Georgia's defensive front, he was quoted as saying, "We're going to have to prepare our asses off." It's fair to say Hayes and his running mates are aware of the threat posed by Walker and Co.